Why Roberta Williams is embarking on another colossal cave adventure in 2022

Even after retiring from developing adventure games, Sierra On-Line co-founder Roberta Williams never stopped adventuring.

After a legendary career pioneering the adventure genre creating games like King’s Quest, Mystery House, Phantasmagoria and many more, Williams has spent her retirement sailing around the world with her husband and Sierra co-founder Ken Williams . And she’s still creating, too, having published her first novel just last year — a historical fiction titled Farewell to Tara.

“I make adventure games and live my life as an adventure,” she told me in an interview at GDC last week. “I love adventure! I’ll go and get it wherever I can get it.”

Robert Williams

Robert Williams

But when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lockdowns halting many of her usual adventures, Williams needed a new project. At the time, Ken was studying Unity with the intention of making a new game of her own when Williams suddenly remembered a game she had loved years ago: Colossal Cave Adventure.

“Without Colossal Cave, Sierra On-Line would never have existed and I wouldn’t have my career or Ken,” she says.

“I was so instantly drawn to it that I literally became addicted to it,” Williams recalls of her first time playing the 1976 text-based adventure. “I couldn’t stop playing it. I played it for weeks. I wanted to get every point and it’s a tough game to get every point. And I did it, and when it was done I wanted more Games play like that and there weren’t any. Not like Colossal Cave. I remember thinking how I got so sucked into this game to the point where I couldn’t stop, I just had to keep going, and I couldn’t be the only one. That’s why I started with Mystery House, my first design, and I just went from there.”

Instead of his project, Williams suggested that Ken try a redesign of Colossal Cave Adventure and turn the old text-based design into a modern 3D game.

Ken and Roberta Williams during the Sierra Online days

Ken and Roberta Williams during the Sierra Online days

“His eyes kind of lit up,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t know if we can get the rights.’ So I left the office and did something else, and an hour later I came in to ask him about lunch and he said, ‘I just got off the phone with Don Woods.'”

Don Woods isn’t the creator of Colossal Cave, but he was a crucial part of its eventual popularity. The game was actually developed by caver and programmer William Crowther in 1976, based on his ex-wife Patricia Crowther’s notes of a real-life caving trip, combined with elements of Dungeons & Dragons. Then, while he was on vacation, a couple of his colleagues found the game left on a mainframe at the research firm where Crowther worked and began distributing it to other computers. That’s how Woods found it and started building on Colossal Cave with more high fantasy elements, puzzles, a scoring system and more. It is the version of Woods that became more widespread that Williams played and used as inspiration for their own adventure games.

Woods explained to Ken over the phone that technically nobody owns Colossal Cave Adventure due to the organic way it was distributed. Neither he nor Crowther had ever attempted to claim any rights to it. Instead, they wanted it to be free to play, rebuild, retool, and replay. So the Williamses could remake it if they wanted – as long as they didn’t try to claim the rights to it themselves. As Roberta Williams puts it, “It’s the game of the world.”

Roberta Williams trying out the Quest 2 on a boat.

Roberta Williams trying out the Quest 2 on a boat.

Finally, in collaboration with Unity, Roberta and Ken Williams reimagined Colossal Cave Adventure as a 3D adventure game for PC and VR. In many ways, it’s as genuine a remake as they could get. All of the original source code is used, as is all of the original narration. Williams says she’s not adding any puzzles of her own either, and while players no longer have to type in commands like “take key” to move around, the same messages, items, and actions are available – just in a point-and-click this time on style.

[Update: Ken Williams reached out after publication to clarify how the original source code is being used. “We’re sticking to the source as close as we can, but it’s more like constantly referring to a book while writing the script for a movie that is based on the book. They are different mediums and don’t directly translate.”]

“I want people who have played this game to feel like it’s right,” says Williams. “This is Colossal Cave. It’s history. I can see it now.”

But that’s just it – now people are really getting into it see the cave, don’t just imagine. What Williams brings to the table is her own vision of what Colossal Cave Adventure looks like. She works with several artists to stay true to the original narrative, especially where there were many detailed descriptions of caves, objects, and creatures. But in some places, she says, there isn’t much description. And this is where she could add her own spin.

“The only thing we don’t want [is], this is a cave. And there’s cave and more cave and cave and cave and cave. Rocks and stalactites and stalagmites. But there wasn’t much story woven into the original design…so I woven in a few stories to make it more interesting and to help us graphically.”

She can’t give too many details just yet, but does point out that this involves defining the dwarves a bit more with personality and roles as miners, and existing areas with additional details like an ancient civilization with a reptilian religion, artifacts left by earlier ones were left to fill explorers and the area with giants and golden eggs. Plus, of course, everything gets music and sound effects.

What you knew 25 years ago is not necessarily what you know today. It was really a bit scary at first.

And all of that in VR. Initially, the only plan was to remake Colossal Cave Adventure on PC. But as Ken tells me in the same interview, they got into VR “accidentally”.

“I found a picture of me 25 years ago wearing VR glasses,” he says. “I said at the time that I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while. It seemed really uncomfortable and unfunny, why would anyone want to do that? But then we practically fell asleep for 25 years, a modern day Rip Van periwinkle.”

When they started working on Colossal Cave they needed art and started poking around the Unity asset store. Ken found good assets there, he said, but wanted more and consulted fellow 3D artist on the project, Marcus Maximus Mera.

Mera, a big VR advocate, encouraged them to try it too, mostly because Unity would allow them to evolve in both. “But then we realized it wasn’t quite that simple,” adds Ken.

VR, he notes, made the project much more complex. There were framerate issues. At one point, someone asked him if the game would be tied or free, and he didn’t know what that meant. “If we had known everything we are doing now, the project would have been much shorter,” he says.

Ken Williams, who tried VR over two decades ago.

Ken Williams, who tried VR over two decades ago.

Adds Roberta, “It was a great learning experience for Ken and I. What you knew 25 years ago is not necessarily what you know today. In the beginning it was really scary. We’ve had to learn really really fast, understand the jargon and the technology and really kill our minds about what we’re doing and jump in there. And we made it. Ken and I are really fast learners and we like a challenge. I would describe us as risk takers, we have always been that way. We were up to the challenge and we’re in for it.”

In a way, the Williamses’ job fits well with their own personal experiences. After being away from games for over two decades, they’ve come to take a game that hasn’t really had a full remake and reinvent it for the modern world. Williams likens it to taking a silent film and remaking it today with modern effects.

But one thing hasn’t changed, she continues: adventure games are still adventure games, and storytelling is still storytelling.

You say There are about 37 or 36 actual stories that have ever been written,” she says. I think that’s true, and I think in the case of game design it’s the same pattern at least for adventure games and probably for many, many games. They fall into a certain theme and way it happens, and it’s probably almost impossible to figure out a new one.

After being away from development for so long, Williams openly says she didn’t actually play games during that time, so she doesn’t look for the inspiration that adventure gaming has grown into. She just remakes Colossal Cave Adventure as it was, but now with image, sound and music. She thinks old Sierra fans and adventure gamers from back then will naturally be interested in the reinterpretation, but isn’t sure what modern audiences will think of it. If it sells well, she says, she and Ken could make more games, possibly reviving Ken’s idea, which she distracted him from when she proposed Colossal Cave.

“Younger people who haven’t experienced it have experienced all the games that are out now and are very used to them – I don’t know,” says Williams. “Will it be popular? Will it be something they want to try? But it’s so different. You have to think, you have to explore, you have to find things out…”

I suggest that some people already love such games today.

“I hope so! If so, adventure gaming could really come back. That would be great.”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

This article was modified after publication to accurately reflect Patricia Crowther’s contribution to the original Colossal Cave Adventure. Why Roberta Williams is embarking on another colossal cave adventure in 2022

Fry Electronics Team

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